Gymnastics can be scary. Flipping through the air, swinging 10 feet off the floor, running at top speed toward an immovable object, balancing on four inches, four feet off the floor… As a result of all these crazy things we ask gymnasts to do, fear is ever-present in this sport. It is sometimes warranted, but oftentimes it is quite irrational, especially because we are dealing with children; they do not yet know how to handle it.
Children must be taught how to employ rational thought in their lives as their brains and personalities develop. They spend the first few years of their lives reacting emotionally — their brains and language skills are not yet equipped to handle anything more. They must learn how to use their mental faculties to handle life’s situations, good and bad. Every coach has the opportunity to help gymnasts develop this life skill.
Regardless of the source of the fear, it is certainly real to the gymnast. Many times, young (and old) gymnasts will assume that they are going to fail before they even try something new. Sometimes it is because they have seen a teammate fall or get hurt on the exact same skill, and they believe that they will do the same thing. Perhaps they have hurt themselves before. Maybe they’re scared of going for a skill alone because they think the coach is “saving their life” every time. Perhaps they just don’t have confidence in their ability. Whatever the source of their fear, reality-based self-confidence is what must be taught and reinforced in order to begin to conquer fear. Providing young gymnasts with the skills to be self-confident will help them to overcome unwarranted fear.
Gymnasts need to be reminded that they are in control of their bodies and their minds. We must help them base their gymnastics in reality, step back, and look at their fears and skills in an objective manner. So, how is this accomplished?
Teach them to look at their gymnastics based on facts. Help your gymnasts see the tangible truths around them. The floor is blue. The mat is soft. A springboard is bouncy. The trampoline is bouncier. Using chalk can help dry sweaty hands. I’ve done lots of drills for this skill. I can do a cartwheel. I can do a cartwheel on the beam, etc. In reciting the facts of the situation, there is no emotionality. Even so, in recognizing the facts surrounding her situation and ability, a gymnast can feel more in control. This will help her be more confident in her gymnastics.
Periodically, coaches should monitor their gymnasts’ realities. Are they actual realities (I can do 10 pull-ups)? Or are they perceived realities (I’m going to land on my head if I jump to the high bar)? Gymnasts need help in learning the difference. Sometimes an actual reality might be negative (for instance, “I don’t have my kip”). This is okay because it can help shape goals, because reality isn’t always positive, and it certainly is not perfect. What does need to happen in this instance, however, is to recognize the traits that might lead to why this negative reality exists, (i.e. lack of physical strength, confidence, speed, drills, experience, etc.). Then, a goal needs to be set for the gymnast to attain.
A good coach will not only be able to help her gymnast learn how to think rationally about gymnastics, but will also lead by example. A good coach will react to reality and not base coaching decisions on emotion (reacting with emotion makes us human, but making decisions based on emotion is not rational). Gymnasts will see, internalize, and emulate any coach’s behavior. Coaches must be aware of their own behavior and expectations.
Learning to think and approaching gymnastics rationally does not happen overnight. However, if coaches are consistent, then gymnasts will learn to apply rational thinking to gymnastics over time. It will become habit and permeate into the rest of their lives, giving them a rational basis on which to live and thrive.